Since Ms. Marvel, a.k.a. Kamala Khan, first made her debut in the pages of Captain Marvel back in 2013 and later headlined her own series in 2014, a lot has been written about her importance as a Muslim, Pakistani superhero. Now that she’s got her very own streaming show, a new generation is discovering Ms Marvel all over again. Our contributor Sarah Osman, who grew up in a Muslim family herself, writes about what it means to her to see this character come to life on screen.
You can stream a brand new episode of Ms. Marvel this Wednesday (and each Wednesday for five more weeks) on Disney+.
Muslims aren’t often represented in Hollywood, and when they are, they are usually portrayed as terrorists or an oppressed minority. Growing up with a Muslim father, I had other kids often ask me if my dad was a terrorist, or worse, just assume he was and spread that fun rumor. I never saw anyone like my family on screen. According to Hollywood, folks like us didn’t exist. My sister once asked my dad what American-Muslim icons Muslim kids in America could look up to. He laughed and replied, “next question.”
When I first heard about Ms. Marvel, I was ecstatic. A Pakistani, Muslim superhero? She deserved her own movie. I was a little disappointed that Disney decided she would only get a TV series, even though there are multiple MCU movies about white dudes. Regardless, I was still excited to finally see someone like me on screen, but I was also worried that based on Disney’s track record, or lack of, with Arabs, she may not be an accurate representation of Muslim culture. I am happy to say that Disney surpassed my expectations. Ms. Marvel is the representation Muslims finally deserve.
In one of the early scenes in Ms. Marvel, 16-year-old Kamala Khan takes her driver’s license test. She whispers the prayer “bismillah” (in the name of God) before putting the car in reverse and crashing into the car behind her. Her parents try to argue their way out of the situation, but are stopped in their tracks when the test instructor informs them that she hit his car. I flashed back to my own driving test, which I failed, primarily due to the terrible driving lessons I received from my father and his friend. But it was the mention of the word “bismallah” that caught my attention. Throughout the first episode, other Arabic phrases were casually dropped in. Most Americans wouldn’t recognize them, but I’ve heard those words my whole life. And now, hearing them in this show nearly brought me to tears. Finally Arabic was treated as an everyday language rather than the speech of terrorists.
Even though Kamala’s family is Pakistani and mine is Egyptian, there were cultural similarities that made me laugh. One of my favorite moments is when Kamala’s mother has an entire meal packed and ready to give to Kamala’s bestie Bruno. Every time I visit my dad and stepmom they immediately have a meal ready for me to eat, whether it’s noon or 2 in the morning. They will pack me falafels and baklava to take on a two-hour-long flight. Their biggest fear is that I am alone somewhere, cold and hungry. When Kamala and her mother visit a local halal stand, I loved the subtle jab at Halal Guys. And of course there are the never ending guilt trips. Kamala’s parents (especially her mother) dish out guilt trips left and right, just as my own family does. Kamala’s life reflects my own when I was a teenager. I often felt the need to hide my identity, since I can pass as white. I had friends tell me to not tell others that I was Egyptian. Putting Kamala’s identity front and center shows that Muslims are not to be feared.
Much of what makes Ms. Marvel work so well is that it’s not just focused on Kamala’s superpowers or on the fact that she’s Pakistani and Muslim. She’s so much more than that. She struggles to balance her culture and her identity as an American, but also as a fangirl. From being considered uncool by her classmates to being intimidated by the Pakistani “aunties” who are determined to keep traditional values alive in Jersey City, Kamala just wants to be accepted for who she truly is. It doesn’t help that her strict parents keep her under their thumb. It’s a conundrum many of us can relate to, even those who did not grow up in an Arab household. And that’s what makes Ms. Marvel so great. Kamala Khan is a clumsy, likable superhero fan worth rooting for, who just happens to be Muslim. That’s the kind of story we need to see more of. It’s refreshing to know that young Muslim girls will now have their very own superhero to look up to on the screen as well as in the comics. Let’s just hope that she’s the first of many.